Hiking the South of France Is a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience

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Hiking the South of France Is a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience

April 15, 2019

We were up early enough on a June morning that the doves hidden in the cypress trees across the street were still cooing when we made a quick stop at the Boulangerie Alais in Bonnieux, one of the prettiest villages in the magnificent 30-mile long Luberon Valley east of Avignon in Provence in the south of France. A bath of puffy fougasses garnished with black olives had just come out of the oven. They were cooling on the counter and filling the air with a mouthwatering  scent of herbs de Provence before joining other freshly baked versions of the same bread garnished with lardons (chunks of bacon), tomatoes and goat cheese in the display case of this friendly little shop.

As a longtime American-in-Paris who’s been lucky enough to spend many happy hours hiking the Luberon over some 25 years, I’ve learned that these delicious brioche-like flatbreads, the French cousin of Italian focaccia and a typically Provençal food, beats trail mix by a mile. Why? Not only are they delicious, they give you an energy boost and some needed salt after you’ve been walking for a while on a warm day.

There are very few places in the world that offer a setting more charming for hiking than the Luberon region. A superb web of well-marked public access trails, paths and farm roads makes it easy to discover on foot its mesmerizing landscapes of forests; fields of wheat, lavender, sunflowers and other crops; vineyards; and orchards of apple, olive and other trees. A good walk is also a great way to build up an appetite for an impromptu picnic shopped from one of the weekly markets held in the Luberon’s delightful villages or a relaxing meal in one of its friendly bistros.

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There are very few places in the world that offer a setting more charming for hiking than the Luberon region. A superb web of well-marked public access trails, paths and farm roads makes it easy to discover on foot its mesmerizing landscapes of forests; fields of wheat, lavender, sunflowers and other crops; vineyards; and orchards of apple, olive and other trees. A good walk is also a great way to build up an appetite for an impromptu picnic shopped from one of the weekly markets held in the Luberon’s delightful villages or a relaxing meal in one of its friendly bistros.

I hadn’t decided which of my preferred hikes I’d take Kit and Alice, friends visiting from Hartford, Conn., on until I was sipping a second cup of coffee just as the sun came up that morning. They had said they were keen to get up close to Provence, to really hear it—bird song, the wind in the trees, rushing water, a distant tractor, a dog barking, maybe even a donkey braying—and smell it—thyme, rosemary, lavender, arbutus, pine and wildflowers, among other scents—the way you can only do when you go for a walk. But, I suspected that like many people at the beginning of a vacation, they were doubtless more tired than they realized. Also, in good shape though they both might be, I was aware that this pair—he’s the vice president of an insurance company, she’s an architect—probably spend most of their time at their computers.

So on our first day out, I wanted to give them a good time without running them into the ground, which is why I settled on a relatively gentle three-hour circular walk from Goult, one of my favorite Luberon villages because it hasn’t been completely gentrified by Parisian weekenders, and it’s just a five-minute drive from the house we were staying at in Bonnieux. In Goult, we met Jutta, a delightful German woman who’s my regular hiking pal, and after running through the checklist necessary for any hike in Provence—map, compass, sun- tan lotion, hats, well-charged cell phone, water, small first-aid kit, plus snacks of fougasses and oranges—we were off.

Our first stop was the Moulin de Jerusalem, a windmill that once belonged to the Marquis de Donis, the last seigneur of Goult. Restored by the village of Goult, this circular stone windmill is a rare surviving example of the many windmills that were once strategically placed on ridges in the region to grind grain.

Following yellow arrows, we began our walk and 40 minutes later reached two beautifully preserved bories, or igloo-shaped dry stone huts. Bories are found all over southeastern France and the oldest date back to roughly 600 B.C. In the Luberon, the earliest bories date to the 13th century, and they were still being built by farmers and shepherds up to the beginning of the 19th century. Archaeologists attribute the development of this building style to the necessity of clearing stones from fields and the fact that few other building materials were readily at hand.

A half-hour later, we made a detour into the little village of Lumieres to stop at Château de l’Ange, where Edith Mézard, one of the most stylish and best-known home furnishing designers in Provence is based in a handsome old château next to a stream. As I suspected, Alice loved the beautifully embroidered sheets, tablecloths and other goods on sale here and immediately decided she’d come back later for some proper shopping. After a snack in the shade of the century-old chestnut trees outside Madame Menard’s château, our walk took us through a mixture of forests and fields for the next hour or so.

During this part of the ramble, Kit was fascinated by the dry stone retaining walls we occasionally came across. “These old walls really give you a sense of what an ancient and settled land this is,” he observed, adding, “They make New England’s stone walls seem brand new.”

Returning to Goult around 12.30 p.m., we arrived at the Café de la Poste, a simple restaurant in the heart of the village that’s popular with the locals and offers good, solid Provençal cooking at lunch- time, when the outdoor terrace is almost always full. I ordered a bottle of chilled local rosé and translated the chalkboard menu.

“Boy, does that taste good,” Kit said after a first sip of wine, and then we tucked into roasted cod with ratatouille, steak tartare with salad, tagliatelle with cep sauce and salad and a daily special, les petits farcis (baby vegetables, including onions, tomatoes and zucchini, stuffed with ground veal and bread crumbs and a specialty of Nice). Equally enjoyable was the high-contrast people watching offered by a place where a table of local farmers in overalls sat next to a quartet of ladies in carefully ironed linen dresses and designer sunglasses.

Back at the house later in the afternoon, I wasn’t surprised to find Kit and Alice pouring over my three favorite French hiking books—Le Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon à Pied by Topo Guides, Dans le Luberon by Glenat and Balades Nature dans le Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon by Dakota. All three of my guidebooks offer detailed maps and descriptions of some of the region’s best hikes, but I also always take along the appropriate map from the series published by the Institut Geographique National et Forestière (IGN), a French association that pub- lishes 350 hiking maps to France. The three books, which are useful even if you don’t speak French, can be ordered through Amazon, while the IGN maps are widely available at stationer’s shops, bookstores and cafés throughout the region.

The next walk we did together, the PR 12 from Le Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon à Pied, is graded moyen (medium difficulty) by the guide, which estimates that it takes four hours. It’s poetically dubbed “The Circuit of the Cedars,” since this 5-mile hike is a long, fragrantly scented up-and-downhill meander in the shade of forests punctuated by these feather-shaped dark green conifers. Before we actually hit the trail, though, we visited the Château de Lacoste, a spectacular 11th century stone castle perched on a crag over the village of Lacoste. I knew Kit and Alice would better appreciate the gorgeous views of the château we’d get later in our walk if they’d seen it up close first.

As I explained to the couple, the dramatically ruined château was originally built in the 11th century by the Simiane family but passed into the hands of the de Sade clan in 1627 when Diane Simiane married Jean-Baptiste de Sade. “Assuming there’s a connection between the Marquis de Sade and this château, I hope it’s not your way of telling us something about the walk we’re about to do,” said Alice. I assured her that despite the fact the Marquis de Sade had indeed spent time at the château—and wrote about it as ‘Château Stilling’ in several books—there was nothing about our impending hike that might be remotely construed as sadistic.

Today the Château de Lacoste is owned by French fashion designer Pierre Car- din, who has been meticulously restoring it for many years and who also sponsors a prestigious annual summer arts festival, Le Festival de Lacoste, in a theater created in a nearby quarry (festivaldelacoste.com). To further reassure Alice of my good intentions, I bought a small wooden box of juicy apricots from Lacoste’s intimate open-air market to take along with us.

If my friends were fascinated by the charbonnieres, the ancient and now abandoned stone charcoal-making kilns we came across during our earlier walk, per- haps the best moment of today’s walk were the superb views from the belvedere de Portalas, a look-out on the crest of a mountain. It was an exceptionally clear day; to the southeast we saw majestic Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that so fascinated the painter Cézanne; Les Alpilles, low mountains where Saint-Remy- de-Provence and Les Baux de Provence are located; and to our surprise, a thin azure band of the Mediterranean sea on the edge of the horizon.

During a hearty lunch of a beets and feta cheese salad dressed in walnut oil, roast rabbit with olive polenta and licorice-flavored crème brûlée at one of my favorite local restaurants, Le Fournil in Bonnieux, I was about to tell Kit and Alice that they shouldn’t feel obliged to walk anymore during their holiday if they didn’t want to. After all, they’d come here to relax. But before I could let them off the hook, Alice chimed in with a desire to do a walk in the countryside around Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt the following day, and Kit asked if we could do a longer hike on Saturday after visiting the busy weekly Saturday morning market in Apt. With very little effort on my part, I realized I’d enlisted another pair of foot soldiers, but then the beauty of the Luberon when you get up close to it and make it personal is pretty hard to resist.

5 Places You Need to Add to Your Travel Bucket List

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5 Places You Need to Add to Your Travel Bucket List

March 26, 2019

The Galápagos Islands

It’s one thing to describe a trip to the Galápagos; it’s something entirely different to experience these islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean firsthand. One of the most protected wildlife sanctuaries in the world, this Ecuadorian archipelago has called to explorers since Charles Darwin visited in 1835. Ecologically speaking, little has changed.

Sailors will see penguins, iguanas, sea lions, fur seals, flamingos, crabs, dolphins, and maybe even hammerhead sharks, all while enjoying the ship’s amenities and staff. The latter includes naturalists, photography experts, biologists, oceanographers, and historians. Pictured below, a seal in Galápagos sun bathing.

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Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa

A family adventure in Africa will create a bond like no other. In addition to scoping out the “safari big five”—lions, leopards, rhinoceros, elephants, and Cape buffalo—you might also see a cheetah or leopard. 

Thanks to its unique location near the Indian Ocean coastline, Phinda benefits from a coastal rainfall pattern, which creates a lush landscape that is home to seven different ecosystems and earns Phinda its nickname, “Seven Worlds of Wonder.” From Phinda, you can also do kid-friendly beach safaris where you might see fur seals and more than 400 species of birds.

St. Kitts and Nevis, West Indies

The neighboring islands of St. Kitts and Nevis are hidden gems of the Caribbean. Separated by a channel less than 2 miles wide, the islands constitute a country (the smallest in size and population in the Western Hemisphere) that is home to about 50,000 people. 

The islands, pictured below, abound with black and silver sand beaches (find the former on St. Kitts and the latter on Nevis), rainforests crisscrossed with hiking and riding trails, a crater lake, green vervet monkeys, and mountains, including the 3,792-foot-tall Mount Liamuiga volcano, which last erupted 1,800 years ago. It’s not difficult on either island to find a beach you’ll have all to yourselves.

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Mougins, French Riviera, France

Travelers have long flocked to the sun-drenched South of France, where days revolve around strolling hand-in-hand through a medieval town, lounging on a beach, or lingering at a seaside café where you can relax with an order of escargot and French bubbly.

Sonoma County, California

Euripides once said, “Where there is no wine, there is no love.” Sonoma County has wine reserves in abundance, so it follows that love should—and does—thrive here, alongside gorgeous countryside, a vibrant dining scene, and countless wineries to explore. 

Explore the Magic of Maine

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Explore the Magic of Maine

March 25, 2019

In winemaking, vintners frequently talk about the terroir of a wine. This French term refers to the interaction of landscape and beverage, the influence that the soil, the topography, and the geography have on the final product. The only real synonym for terroir is somewhereness. Neither term is perfect, but they both describe something important, something essential—how place and land exert a subtle influence on everything that grows and lives there. And I am convinced that there is no place in the world that has more somewhereness than Maine.

Located at the northeastern corner of New England, Maine is a richness of wilderness. It is the most heavily forested state in the union, and, thanks to the many finger-like peninsulas that jut into the Atlantic Ocean, has more miles of coastline than California. There’s a saying in Maine: “You can’t get there from here.” Travelers to the state quickly learn its truth. Maine is made of winding roads and small towns, scenic byways, and hidden treasures.

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It’s a place where you want to get lost, because getting lost means discovering a secret beach where bioluminescence glows under the nighttime stars. Getting lost means stumbling upon a pine forest with trees that were once used as masts for the Royal Navy, tall and straight and regal (known fittingly as “King Pines”). Getting lost means finding a tiny harbor where you can buy lobsters from a fisherman out of the back of his pickup truck. Maybe he’ll invite you home for dinner. Stranger things have happened.

Although Maine has entered the 21st century alongside the rest of the world, there are elements of traditional New England life that persist here. People continue to make their living off the land and to reap the benefits of the sea. It’s not uncommon to meet a fisherman who also harvests timber and makes his own furniture from fine-grained black locust wood. There are still lumberjacks in Maine, and there are hundreds of small family farms and fragrant apple orchards, places where people submerge their hands in the dirt on a daily basis, coaxing forth golden potatoes, leafy dark green lettuce, and huge orange pumpkins from the loamy earth.

Often, on a country road, you’ll come across an unmanned farm stand with a sign that reads, “Fresh fruit and eggs.” If this happens to you during your visit to Maine, always stop and slip a few dollars into the can, for the honor system is alive and well here, and few experiences bring such pure pleasure as eating a handful of blueberries, fresh-picked by a trusting old farmer (or just as likely, her barefoot children).

Whether you’re taking a stroll on Ogunquit’s iconic Marginal Way (which runs above the rocky coastline) or climbing to the top of Mount Agamenticus in York, the coast of Maine is where you’ll most strongly feel the somewhereness of this land. But you can still find evidence of the primal, rugged landscape even in the cities and small towns that pepper the shoreline. There are charming little hamlets, such as York (a quintessential New England village located right on the border with New Hampshire), Wiscasset (the prettiest town in Maine, according to those in the know) and further north, Bar Harbor (a famous escape for the 19th-century elite), not to mention the vibrant metropolis of Portland.

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While this city has more James Beard Award-nominated restaurants than it has any right to, you can also find great eateries in Kennebunkport, Ogunquit, and Old Orchard Beach. After a day exploring tiny hidden beaches, there’s nothing better than finding a restaurant right on the water where you can sample fresh-caught seafood and farm-to-table fare. Maine’s famous for its lobster, but I taste the essence of Maine most poignantly when I slurp down an oyster. Eaten with french fries made from locally grown potatoes and you’re actually devouring Maine’s clear water, mineral-rich soil, clean air, and northern sunlight. It’s a gift, but that’s what coastal Maine is: a place of freely given gifts, honor system delights, and wilderness, unbound.

Why London Should Be on Your Travel List

Why London Should Be On Your Travel List

March 19, 2019

According to Herman Melville, there are exactly two places on the planet a person can disappear: London and the South Seas. The American novelist clearly had an understanding of how London’s quick tempo and whirlwind of culture and iconoclasm can dazzle and then consume a person. From the West End’s effusive world of theatre to the British capital’s pulsing financial hub of Canary Wharf, the city is alive with culture with a capital “C.” London is a bustling international center where British classics like Savile Row bespoke tailoring coexist alongside Indian restaurants that are, according to some, better than Indian restaurants in India. Yet its green, leafy squares and gardens, from Richmond to Regents Park, provide a much-needed respite from overstimulation. The city is an evergreen hot spot for travelers, but it seems to be more verdant than ever these days.

London—aka The Square Mile—has the distinction of being the only city to have hosted three Summer Olympic Games during modern times: 1908, 1948 and 2012. Good things seem to come in threes for the British metropolis, which has experienced three contemporary golden ages: the Swinging Sixties, Cool Britannia in the ’90s, and a current renaissance in postmillennial times. With all the buzz, fanfare, events, and general metropolitan madness, spread-out London might seem challenging to navigate.

The Olympic venues, located throughout the city—and beyond its confines—provide good starting points. Olympic Park is in the East End of London, which also encompasses some very cool and trendy neighborhoods like Shoreditch. Greenwich offers a chance to side-trip to the chronological center of the world: The Royal Observatory, where Greenwich Mean Time is set. And, of course, Hyde Park is a giant patch of nature in an urban area, near Buckingham Palace. What follows are more tips for maneuvering through the sights and customs of this sparkling, worldly city.

By tube: The London Underground is the fastest, easiest, most cost-effective way to make it to all the Olympic event venues and beyond. It’s advisable to buy an Oyster Card at the station (which you can fill up “pay as you go” at the kiosk). Dating back to the 1860s, the Tube isn’t as optimal as buses for sightseeing. But you can make your way to one of London’s oldest underground stations—Covent Garden— and give yourself an Olympic challenge by attempting to climb its notoriously Hitchcockian winding staircase of 193 steps. If vertigo is less of an issue than claustrophobia, avoid Waterloo station at all costs. With 57,000 people entering during morning rush hour, it’s London’s busiest Tube station. Find the  London Online Tube Map here.

By Car: London is such a big city that bobbing around town will cost you a bob or two, especially if you go the route of the black taxi— which is stylishly old-fashioned but notoriously expensive and generally avoided by smart Londoners. It’s wise instead to employ the services of Addison Lee, a popular first-rate “minicab” service. It establishes a set rate in advance so you can avoid screeching-halt-worthy fares. It also gives you the option to pay by credit card over the phone, and your driver will text you to alert you that your car has reached its destination. If you’re lucky, you may even be pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a sleek black Mercedes-Benz. Find the London Mini Cab Service here.

By Bus: Although terribly slow, the London buses, particularly the iconic red double-deckers, are certainly a memorable way to travel almost door-to-door and see the sights, especially if you’re lucky enough to get “the royal seat” (top level, front row center). For the first time in more than 50 years, the double-decker bus (aka The Routemaster) has undergone a makeover by English designer Thomas Heatherwick and enters service this year. Don’t worry—they’re still bright red, but they’re now also green, as in eco-friendly with a new diesel-electric hybrid drive. Find the  London Bus Map here.

The Pubs: There’s much dispute over which pubs are the oldest in London— some placards indicate roots as early as the 16th century. But there’s no argument about the fact that pub culture figures heavily into the daily lives of Londoners, even in the 21st century. People from all ages and walks of life congregate in these so-called public houses over beer and ale, the biggest and most diverse crowds assembling just after work hours to blow off steam. Londoners often put in overtime, so when the Friday whistle blows, these old watering holes become particularly jampacked and frankly undesirable. On such evenings, buses and Tubes are transformed into fluorescent-lit stages for some fairly disorderly antics. With so many dark, similar looking pubs dotting the streets of London, it can be difficult to choose one. Some pubs with notable features do, however, stand above the rest. The Elgin (96 Ladbroke Grove) in Notting Hill has free music on most nights. The band The Clash is rumored to have gotten its start there. On the last Tuesday of each month it has an open “gin club” that features gin tasting. The Churchill Arms (119 Kensington Church St.) in Kensington is hard to miss with its garlands of flowers festooning its facade (for which it has won awards). Its restaurant in the back oozes old-fashioned character and the feel of a classic beer garden.

Sunday Roast: On Sundays, in the late afternoon or early evening, Brits observe a sort of weekly Thanksgiving lite known as Sunday Roast. This is a time for family togetherness generally centered around a plump roast beef with Yorkshire pudding to follow. During a visit to London, it may not be possible to get adopted by a family and invited to such a traditional feast. But there are plenty of pubs that offer their own versions of Sunday Supper—the best of which are more upscale gastropubs such as The Grazing Goat (6 New Quebec St.) in Marble Arch or The Mitre (40 Holland Park Ave.) in Holland Park. In the East End, The Water Poet (9-11 Folgate St.) hosts a popular Sunday lunch until 5 p.m. Beyond the gastropub, Boisdale is a laid-back but high-end British restaurant/club with a whiskey bar, live jazz, a cigar terrace and library, and a caviar and oyster bar. It serves up hearty Scottish fare like haggis and fish pie in Belgravia (15 Eccleston St.) and Canary Wharf (at Cabot Place).

Tea, Anyone? Britain is pretty much synonymous with tea, casually referred to as “a cuppa.” Be aware that there are two kinds of tea services: afternoon tea and high tea (and of course the more casual a la carte cuppa which is enjoyed several times a day on tea breaks). High tea is served in the early evening from 5 onward and includes heavy meat dishes like shepherd’s pie. The multicourse tea service with finger sandwiches known to most Americans is afternoon tea, which is served from about 2 to 4 p.m. Etiquette-wise, especially when having tea in someone’s home, we’re told some Londoners consider it a faux pas to pour your tea before you add milk, as it might stain the fine china. The lavish and traditional high teas at hotels and tea houses like The Savoy (located at Strand), The Lanesborough (1 Lanesborough Place) in Knightsbridge, The Ritz (150 Piccadilly) and Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly) in Green Park tend to cater to tourists but can still be great fun. Smaller boutique hotels like the stylish Hempel (31-35 Craven Hill Gardens) in Bayswater and Blakes (33 Roland Gardens) in Chelsea host memorable afternoon tea services. And the former, a beautiful 5-star property, boasts an exquisitely manicured and designed front garden.

Leighton House: Once you’ve visited the art heavyweights like the British Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, The Tate Britain, The Tate Modern and the Victoria & Albert, it’s time for something a bit more off-the-radar: Leighton House. Some locals haven’t even heard of this exotic little jewel. Tucked away by gorgeous Holland Park, the small museum was once the 19th century home and studio of Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton. Its Arab Hall is made up of more than 1,000 Islamic tiles from Damascus. Beyond the museum’s spectacular interior design, it has hosted some pretty esoteric and interesting exhibits, such as one featuring paintings of Marrakech by Winston Churchill.

There was a time when visitors to London planned their trips around the plethora of attractions that are the fabric of this cosmopolitan city. Meals were an afterthought, and the local fare had a reputation for being tasteless and bland. My, how times have changed. London today is truly a food lover’s paradise, and many a celebrated chef has set out to conquer the city. These days it’s a tasty, culinarily savvy hotspot—with Michelin stars to back it up. Goodbye fish and chips, hello global cuisine.

Japanese Zuma: 5 Raphael Street, SW7 A sophisticated blend of modern décor and innovative fare, loyal patrons continue to praise what they call the best Japanese restaurant in the city. A 10-yearold staple in Knightsbridge, Zuma has an atmosphere that combines urban coolness with seductive glamour. Whether it’s miso-marinated lamb chops seared on the robata grill, chiliglazed edamame or wine and sake from the acclaimed cellar of Alessandro Marchesan, everything about Zuma is electrifying and well worth the visit. 

Seafood J Sheekey: 28 St. Martin’s Court, WC2 Tucked away in the heart of Covent Garden in Soho, J Sheekey is renowned for its tantalizing preparation of fish, oysters, shellfish and other fruits de mer. Two of London’s top restaurateurs have created a fish-lover’s haven, and today locals and celebrities flock to the restaurant for some of the town’s greatest food, excellent service and fabulous wines. The restaurant’s clubby atmosphere is a welcome retreat, where guests can get comfortable at the counter or tuck into intimate leather booths that afford a great place to see and be seen. 

Euro Brasserie the Delaunay:  55 Aldwych WC2B 4BB New to London’s dining scene, The Delaunay is the latest restaurant of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, proprietors of the iconic Wolseley. Situated at the edge of London’s Covent Garden, this low-key brasserie harkens back to grand European tradition, with its bowlertopped doorman, dramatic décor, elaborate desserts and dishes that rival the finest from Germany and France. Here, celebrities can be seen indulging in mouthwatering desserts such as the incredible sacher torte, or noshing on an appetizer of Flammkucken, a German dish that resembles a thin-crust pizza topped with smoked bacon and shallots. The Delaunay offers great breakfasts, but will serve up a late-night meal that is well worth the wait. 

French Brawn: 49 Columbia Road, E2 7RG A great new local hangout, Brawn’s daily menu is an interesting mix of small plates and big, bold flavors. Salads and vegetables are well-represented, but it’s the prosciuttos, scallops and, yes, brawn that entice. Less adventurous diners will love the globe artichoke with vinaigrette or the English pea and mushroom risotto, but don’t be afraid to sample some of the other delicacies on the menu. The fresh-baked sourdough bread is simply delicious, and the wine offerings are varied and fun. 

Pub Lady Ottoline: 11a Northington Street, WC1N 2JF Named for a member of the aristocratic Bloomsbury set, the Lady Ottoline gastropub was recently refurbished and restored to its former glory. The first floor encompasses a typical pub where more serious drinkers can order from a less-formal bar menu. Up the narrow staircase is the restaurant, where diners can choose from surprisingly elaborate dishes such as cured duck breast or lobster and crab risotto. The mainstay of any pub, pork belly, is as good as it gets, served perfectly cooked and flavorful.

Cafe Bar Italia: 22 Frith Street, Soho, W1D 4RT  People flock to Bar Italia for the stupendous coffee, which is supplied by Signor Angelucci, who lays claim to a secret blend that he has been using since 1947. The barista prides himself on remembering customers, and that personal service is a source of customer loyalty. Celebrities are no strangers to the place, and it’s not unusual to see familiar faces drop in, such as Rupert Everett, Kylie Minogue, Boy George, or Francis Ford Coppola.

Why Africa Is the Perfect Place for Your Next Family Vacation

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Why Africa Is the Perfect Place for Your Next Family Vacation

March 18, 2019

Helen and Chris Ireland knew they wanted to take their two kids, Caroline and Thomas, to Africa. Now a primary care physician, Helen worked in a hospital in Botswana during her medical school training. “From then I always knew Africa would be a part of my life and, eventually, my kids’ lives,” she says. “But I knew I couldn’t bring them too early.” After chatting with Inspirato co-founder and chief experience officer Brian Corbett on Inspirato’s 2016 Eastern Mediterranean cruise, the Irelands were inspired. “Brian had just returned from a trip to Africa with his kids, and his advice was to just go,” Helen says. Thomas would be 10 and Caroline, 7. “And it happened to be the year both my husband and I turned 40.”

Because the family wanted to stay at Kenya’s Giraffe Manor, the world’s only hotel with resident giraffes (which often books up one year in advance), the Irelands started planning their July 2018 trip in the summer of 2017. Helen worked with Inspirato’s new Bespoke travel team, which, for custom trips to Africa, partners with Rothschild Safaris. Rothschild has more than 30 years of experience planning trips to Africa and has planned more than 7,000 trips.

Helen says her description to Rothschild Safaris of what the family wanted their Africa trip to be was “comfortably uncomfortable and authentic. I wanted it to be different enough to get [the kids] totally out of their comfort zone while still supportive enough to keep us all smiling, and authentic enough to provide education beyond textbooks in as non-touristy an environment as possible.” Beyond this and the stay at Giraffe Manor, neither she nor Chris had specific directions for Rothschild. “We weren’t completely aware of the options, and that was really the value of working with the Inspirato partner. Rothschild was the one who suggested we do Kenya as our primary safari destination because it is family friendly,” says Helen.

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By September 2017 the itinerary was set: Between June 23 and July 11, the Irelands would travel to a couple of different game reserves in Kenya, and also spend a night in Qatar and a few nights in Nairobi before ending the trip at the Six Senses Zil Pasyon in the Seychelles. About the Seychelles, Helen says, “I wanted to end it with just the four of us and feel like no one could reach us. I had always thought of the Seychelles as a honeymoon destination, but it ended up being lovely for the kids.”

Four months after returning home, Helen says of the whole trip, “It was the best travel experience I’ve ever had and exactly what I asked for.” Of one specific location on the itinerary, Ol Malo Lodge, a privately owned game sanctuary on the banks of the Uaso Nyiro River in Kenya’s North Eastern Province and bordering the tribal lands of the nomadic Samburu people, she says, “It was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever done with my kids. It felt like we were going and living with extended family.”

“One of my big takeaways from this trip was that the kids actually liked the people more than the animals,” Helen says. “That had been my experience being in Africa years prior.” At Ol Malo, Caroline was entranced by one of the women in the family who owns the property. “Chyulu is an incredibly strong female and my daughter had such a reverence for her,” Helen says. To Caroline’s delight, the Irelands shared quite a bit of time with Chyulu, her young children, and Marmite, a baby rescue zebra. “There was this weeks-old zebra wandering around with us,” Helen says. “It was amazing, and for the kids a moment of pure discovery of something that was so foreign and priceless and pure. It was moments like that that made this trip, and, thinking back on the trip now, I can’t believe how many of those moments we had.”

One day on safari in the Mara North Conservancy—a private wilderness area bordering the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where Rothschild Safaris recommended the Irelands go because it is dedicated to low-density tourism—the family saw a lioness kill a just-born giraffe. “It was so young it had not even stood up yet,” Helen says. “We saw the kill completely. My son’s reaction was amazement, but Caroline’s initial reaction was tears. Eventually when she saw we weren’t fearful of it and we talked about the circle of life, it became something amazing for her too. It was straight out of the pages of National Geographic.”

Helen says one of the things that bonded them as a family was a long game drive on which they saw little. They were in the Mara and hidden in bushes from which they could see a tree where their guide knew a leopard had stashed a kill. “Once a leopard has put its prey in a tree, it revisits it over the course of a few days,” Helen explains. But the family had spent a whole morning there without seeing the leopard. They left to eat lunch on a bluff overlooking a herd of hippos and, after lunch, would have been fine heading back to Saruni Mara, their boutique lodge. The guide suggested they give the tree and leopard another chance, though. “Probably at the three- or four-hour mark, my son was starting to act up and came out with the best quote of the trip, ‘Seriously, Mom, I have no idea why we’ve been sitting here for four hours watching a dead animal hanging in a tree.’ I looked at him and just started laughing. And then he was looking at me in total shock and then he started laughing. And then all of us, including the guide, started cracking up. It was such a lesson in perseverance and it just bonded us.” They did eventually see the leopard briefly later that afternoon, and then the next day watched it finish the prey, only to be surprised by the leopard’s year-old cub standing directly in front of their truck.

As excited as that guide was for the Irelands to see the leopard in the tree, he was quick to recognize when the kids had had enough. One afternoon, instead of taking them on a game drive, he hung out with Thomas and Caroline and made a bow and arrows for each. “We carried these with us for the rest of our trip and they’ve become irreplaceable souvenirs,” Helen says.

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A safari guide and member of the Samburu tribe at Ol Malo brought the Irelands to his house. “He knew my daughter liked dogs and he had a new puppy,” Helen says. Other Samburu invited the family to their homesteads, market, and school. “They even brought me to the town’s medical clinic, where I was sorely tempted to stay and work for a bit,” Helen says. Four months after the trip ended, Helen and Caroline were still wearing around their ankles the beads the Samburu women gave them.

“We’ve been members of Inspirato since the early days, and the majority of my precious memories, or the ones that warm my heart and still put a smile on my face, have Inspirato as part of them,” Helen says. “The memories from this trip are just a bit brighter.”

Why Baja, Mexico Is Unlike Any Other Destination in North America

Cabo-Hero

Why Baja, Mexico, Is Unlike Any Other Destination in North America

February 25, 2019

From where I sit on this jazz cruise, a “luxury sailing excursion,” I can see pale tourists onshore posing with two caged lion cubs at a pop-up photo stand. And across the bay, at Jack’s Bar & Grill, the faux-swaggering, paste-on mustachioed Captain Sparrow accosting tourists is hardly the exotic character I travel to meet.

Authentic, it turns out, isn’t always a good thing.

This crassness is precisely why I have never before ventured to Baja’s Cabo San Lucas, which I’ve long associated with everything base about Mexican travel. Like its Nevada doppelganger, Vegas, this tourist town at the tip of the Baja peninsula is so hip that it goes just by Cabo. But while the place might be as graceless as the border towns of Nogales and Laredo, it still attracts some 1.5 million visitors each year. And judging by kitsch Cabo San Lucas proper, they’re not coming for the culture.

Proximity is surely an appeal. Hop a flight from L.A. and you can be pink from sun exposure before you’d have even touched down on flights to Hawaii or Costa Rica. And then there are the beaches, which rival the Caribbean. On the 18-mile-long corridor of coastal highway stretching to the northeast, hundreds of hotels and resorts have carved out pristine space on rocky headlands and sugary strands that are inarguably stunning.

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That’s where I’m staying, at a resort called Esperanza that’s part country club, part beach hideaway; the sort of place you could settle into for a week and never leave. “Many of our clients eat here, sleep here, sun here, and then fly home,” says Lucas Williams, my Destination Concierge. And while that sounds perfectly anesthetizing, I’m curious to know if there’s more to Baja California Sur.

That’s what led to the evening jazz cruise, which at first doesn’t give me much hope. But then the local Kool-Aid starts to kick in. The boat motors into Bahía Cabo, where the Arch of San Lucas, a natural limestone passage cut from the sea, is backlit in golden God-light, and everyone quiets the genuine awe. The moment is legitimately stirring. There’s authenticity to be found in Cabo if you’re willing to look for it.

I go searching up the west coast the next morning on a day trip to the village of Todos Santos. The Cabo circus act disappears as soon as I crest the first hill out of town, and I’m suddenly speeding through desolate high desert scratched with thorny acacias and topsy-turvy cardón cactus reminiscent of Arizona’s saguaros.

Little more than a pocked double track a couple years ago, the road has lately been paved and widened to four lanes. The hope is that once the bypass around Cabo San Lucas is complete, developers will be inclined to build on this stretch of coast since travelers could reach it from the international airport in about an hour. For now, it’s just open highway with the occasional dusty side road trailing off to the Pacific.

Todos Santos is dozy too, with a single strip of pavement through town and a quaint little Catholic church the color of whipped egg yolks overlooking a cobbled plaza. Three wrinkly old men in scuffed boots and battered cowboy hats sit so still on a palm-shaded bench that I have to walk closer to make sure they’re not statues.

The only real action is down the street at The Hotel California, which owner Debbie Stewart claims (but can’t prove) is the establishment that inspired the song, though she’s quick to emphasize that’s where the connection ends. “We’re not selling the Eagles. We’re selling real Mexico,” she says, explaining that Todos Santos is part of a Mexican tourism initiative called Pueblos Mágicos to promote the country’s most culturally compelling towns. The plaza was recently spruced up, several new boutique hotels have opened in renovated, 100-year-old buildings, and a few art galleries have popped up in anticipation of the increased traffic. “Mostly though people still just come here to surf and relax,” Stewart says.

She suggests a trip to Playa Los Cerritos, 10 minutes down a sandy track from the highway. When I arrive, 30 or so cars are parked beside a thatch-roof bar, with a dozen white umbrellas facing the sea. I take my place under a free umbrella among the crowd of mostly Mexican families, and a waiter is soon plying me with margaritas, icy bottles of Sol beer and totopos and guacamole. He keeps up a steady flow of refrescos as I read, nap and listen to the thrum of the sea, and before I know it evening has come.

Back in town, the trio of gauchos on the plaza hasn’t moved. I take their cue and settle in on the covered, street-front arcade to watch life go by. Stewart tells me that if I’d come a month ago, I could have watched whales steaming past town from shore, but they’ve already moved north for the summer.

A stooped old man leads a donkey down the opposite side of the road by a frayed rope. Then a procession of churchgoers singing hymns in Spanish tread slowly the other direction toward the church. It’s nothing but everyday life here in Baja, but to me it’s both exotic and deeply quieting.

“Cabo is about the party. La Paz is about the water,” Stewart says.

“We’re just a quiet little town with history and a sense of place.” This laidback vibe is exactly why Todos Santos is seeing an increase of both development and visitors. And the sublime mix of vast desert and sea helps, too. It’s the same trifecta—sand, sea, culture—that has always drawn people to Baja, long before, and perhaps in spite of, the development of Cabo. On the dark desert night’s drive back, I roll down the window to get the cool Pacific wind in my hair. Cabo San Lucas might be only an hour down the road, but it feels decades away.

The next day, I drive the other direction up the highway to San Jose del Cabo. And I’m glad I do. If Cabo San Lucas is the Disneyland of Baja, San José del Cabo is Santa Barbara, with a prim little downtown, endearing shops that don’t revolve around T-shirts or gaudy ceramics, and a modicum of self-respect. Even the local tequila shop, Los Barilles de Cuervo, forgoes the overbearing eat-the-worm bravado and pours up tequila tastings from its 260 varieties.

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Midmorning, I walk down quiet avenues admiring pink bougainvillea that climb up whitewashed Spanish revival façades and stop to pet the occasional cat—even the strays here feel approachable. I like to think that it’s just this charming, small-town atmosphere that brings so many foreigners to Baja, both as travelers and expatriates.

I start to notice galleries all around, full of paintings that make you stop and look, such as the mod, mixed-media piece at the O Gallery that depicts, among other things, an anthropomorphic Easter Bunny on a crucifix. It’s weighty stuff, especially in a country as Catholic as Mexico, and I can’t resist going inside. The owner, a stubbly, ponytailed Parisian transplant from Los Angeles who goes only by François, describes a nascent art scene in San José del Cabo. “We still get the tourists coming here looking for cheap ashtrays, but there are more and more proper buyers,” he says. “Most of Baja is just stunning physically. The desert next to the sea … it’s like another planet.”

In that sense San José is still catching up. With the art and the investments in the place, it’s becoming beautiful. He invites me back in two days for the monthly Thursday-night art walk, promising cocktails, good conversation, and a handful of openings.

Around the corner, artist Frank Arnold’s airy home is part of his gallery, and it’s not until I’m leaning across a bed staring at a dark interpretation of a bull that it occurs to me that I might be intruding. Then Arnold’s assistant, a short little Mexican fellow who speaks so fast I never catch his name no matter how many times I ask, appears from around a corner and assures me that I’m welcome to traipse all over the home and admire the artwork. Arnold has stepped out, though a palette sits waiting on a side table and the canvas he’s painting is still wet. His assistant introduces me instead to his Bichon Frisé poodle named Picasso, and encourages me to sample from any of the decanters of tequila (Granada, almond, and regular) around the studio. When I try to beg off because of the early hour, he acts almost wounded. “It is past 11 o’clock,” he says.

In the end, what I appreciate most about San José isn’t the friendly reception or the significant artwork—though both are a pleasure. What’s nice is coming across something unexpected. For me, travel is about experiencing things I couldn’t otherwise at home: sipping fine liquor in the morning, listening to François’ story of driving a moving truck down the Baja peninsula and simply knowing that Los Cabos isn’t only about spring break hedonism and tropical escape. You can find something true here if you’re willing to scratch around for it.

After my tour of town, I stop at a taco shop called Rossy’s and gorge on fresh tortillas stuffed with smoked marlin, tempura fried fish, and marinated octopus. The seafood is so fresh I go back for a second serving. I also order an Ojo Rojo, the classic Mexican cocktail I’ve always wanted to try that blends Tecate and Clamato, that strange-sounding mix of tomato and clam juices. When it arrives, I’m as expectant as a serious buyer waiting for a new piece from my favorite painter. I taste it, and I almost spit it out.

Authentic, it turns out, isn’t always a good thing.

The only thing left is to experience Cabo as most visitors do: From the comfort of an all-inclusive resort. And it’s easy at Esperanza, where a concierge caters to everything.

When I mention that I’d like to go kayaking, Williams, the Desination Concierge, selects a nearby trip and has a guide waiting for me at 9 o’clock the next morning. We put in at a limestone-protected cove 10 minutes east of the resort, and though I imagine that waters this close to town will be turbid and denuded of any marine life, I see fish flash like sun-catching prisms below my hull as soon as we push off.

At Bahia Santa Maria, another calm bay, the corals are vibrant shades of blue and green, and schools of striped grunt flicker in the morning sun. I follow a pair of bumphead parrotfish as big as dorm-room refrigerators and try to catch up with a sea turtle, which easily fins away. “Jacques Cousteau didn’t call the Sea of Cortez ‘the world’s aquarium’ for nothing,” the guide says. It’s a line he must use often.

After a few hours on the water, I’m ready for lunch, and Williams encourages me to try the resort’s beach club. I’m convinced I’ll get a better meal if I drive back to San José and seek out a local joint, but the sun has made me lazy. So I order lunch at the resort club and settle into a fluffy, bleach-white towel under a thatched palapa. And if I’m honest, the grilled fish and I wouldn’t trade my meal at Rossy’s—nor the tequila with Picasso the poodle or my classic rock desert sojourn to Todos Santos. But neither would I give up a single bite of these luscious Esperanza tacos, not even if my wife begged. Baja is a place of sharp contrasts—the craggy, little-explored desert peaks of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains tumbling straight into crystalline seas—and no trip here would be complete without the push and pull of these natural and man made forces.

After picking over the taco plate for every last morsel, I order a margarita. And as I’m lingering on the sun-splashed, cloudy-brain edge of a nap, I’ll be damned if I don’t see three whales breaching a few hundred meters out at sea. I consider rushing back to the villa to get my binoculars. Instead, I just watch them steam away to the south until I can’t keep my eyes open any longer and drift asleep.

Summer Vacation Hot Spots for Your Family

Summer Vacation Hot Spots for Your Family

February 19, 2019

Imagine stepping out your front door and inhaling a mouthful of fresh sea-salt air. Or closing the door behind you and strolling on boardwalks past meticulously quaint gardens and picture-perfect cottages. Did you hear that? That’s right. No noise but the breaking of waves and the sound of surf and sand. No honking cars, no milling crowds, just miles of unspoiled views and the glimmer of white-powder sand shining in the early morning sun. 

Known for its 15 beaches, a 26-mile stretch of uninterrupted pure white sand and relaxed family atmosphere, South Walton, Florida, is the ideal place to come together and create lifelong memories. While the pristine beaches will always beckon with their promise of total relaxation, there are plenty of things to do here besides get your feet covered with sand, or your entire body if you happen to be playing with the kids. 

For nature lovers, South Walton is an endless playground with 40 percent of its land area preserved for state parks, dune lakes, and coastal forests. There is no limit to how much one can explore—and in what ways. Biking, horseback riding, or just taking long strolls along the dunes are some of the top pastimes here. To truly experience the scenery of the popular Rosemary Beach area, rent a bike or take a leisurely hike down the Eastern Lake Bike/Hike Trail. With three state parks, one of them being a 2,000-acre beachfront beauty, each park offers amazing wildlife and scenery.

Sporting enthusiasts and activity junkies will also find plenty to do here. Horseback riding through the local woodlands is a popular pastime, and the area is also known as a haven for paddle boaters. But for those looking for a more relaxing way to explore the water, kayaking across a dune lake is a must-do for the entire family. And last but not least, South Walton just happens to be a mecca for golf enthusiasts. With more than 207 holes of championship golf available here, locals swear by Walton County’s Tom Fazio-designed Camp Creek Golf Club that features a course with its own natural wetland system. 

For kids, highlights include spending the entire day at Treasure Island in the popular Big Kahuna’s Lost Paradise amusement park, a draw for little tykes and bigger kids alike. Another family excursion that gets top billing is the Gulf World Marine Park. Offering a variety of aquatic animals, birds, and a nighttime show, there’s also an option to swim with the dolphins. And while there’s plenty for kids to do here, adults will enjoy getting away for some alone time when night falls. Whether it’s sipping on cucumber martinis at one of the local quaint bars, strolling through the shops and art galleries, or kicking back and enjoying one of the many outdoor concerts in this sophisticated Florida town, there’s something to do for everyone here sunup to sundown.

If your idea of the perfect day sounds anything like this—traveling with the family to a remote village to experience local island traditions, hiking above the highest volcanic peak, and watching a humpback whale migrate in the distant shores, followed by a romantic dinner for two at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant Spago—then Maui is just the vacation you’ve been waiting for. On Maui, families with kids of all ages will thrive due to the natural bounty that awaits and the kid-friendly attitude of the locals. It’s a multigenerational hotspot, allowing for activities that accommodate youngsters, their parents and even their grandparents. This is a place for making memories.

Here, one can choose to kayak toward Turtle Town, where you’ll see green sea turtles swim with tropical fish. For families with older children, no trip to Maui would be complete without trying one’s hand at surfing or hiking up one of the many trails at the Haleakala National Park, Maui’s highest volcano. (For those who want to expend a little less effort, hitch a van ride up to the viewing area and careen down the winding road on a bike.) Families with kiddos in tow need not worry about their little ones braving the surf. Grab a spot at Baby Beach located in Lahaina. A great place for youngsters to wade into the water without large waves scaring them away, families can spend the day relaxing knowing that their kids’ foray into the ocean is both gentle and fun. Another great option for the little ones is the adventure-filled submarine ride excursion from Atlantis Adventures, which offers a unique stop at Carthaginian, a whaling ship replica that lies under 100 feet of water.

For something a little off the beaten path, day trips to Hana, a remote, unspoiled village, are known not only for the uniqueness of the destination, but also for the scenery along the way. Driving the road to Hana is an adventure unto itself—some car rental companies even cite it as a no-no. With gorgeous views, tropical waterfalls and the occasional grassy plain, the road to Hana is a popular excursion for families who are looking for natural thrills and an unspoiled view of Maui. This is one collective family experience not soon forgotten. As night falls and the little ones get restless, treat the entire family to an old-fashioned luau complete with twirling hula dancers, drumbeats, and fire throwing. The whole clan will come together in a fun, festive environment to feast and learn about the local traditions through dance, song, and food.

There’s a reason families return to C Lazy U Ranch in Colorado year after year. Tailored to accommodate every member of the family, the five-star dude-ranch vacation set in a rustic-but-pristine lodge is the perfect glamping (glamorous camping), high-rodeo experience that offers activities for individuals and large groups. From the accommodations to the activities to the location, everything works in tandem for memory-making and vacation-taking.

Think of it as a luxury sleep-away camp for kids (the camp is tailored to children ages 6 and up) that you can actually share with them at the end of the day. From learning to ride horses, to putting on plays, to telling stories by the campfire and operating a real-life carnival for the adults, there’s a sense of pride that comes with getting involved in this old-fashioned, camp-like experience, albeit with all the luxury conveniences modern families have come to expect.

Moms and dads who want some Wild West communion with nature but don’t want to sleep on the ground (and would prefer to have an on-site spa and gourmet restaurant) need not worry. C Lazy U combines country club amenities with all the excitement of the outdoors. At the beginning of your stay, you’re interviewed by the head wrangler, who then hand-selects the horse that matches your equestrian personality, whether it’s cautious never-ever or seasoned thrill-seeker. That’ll be your horse for the duration of your stay, and you can develop a special relationship with it. Riding along on a cattle drive is often a major highlight, as are the scenic trail rides. Still, there is plenty on offer for the non-riders in the group. For those who want to get outdoors in other ways, fly-fishing, zip lining, hiking, and tennis are just some of the active pursuits available here. No matter what a guest’s activity level or personal preference, the on-site ranch concierge works hard to ensure that every member of the family comes away with a happy experience.

Adults will feel as relaxed and catered to as if vacationing completely on their own, but with all the joy that comes from connecting with their children. Spa treatments, lounging by the pool, and gourmet dining are just some of the ways parents will choose to pamper themselves. And there’s no shortage of things to experience as a family. From a lunchtime barbecue to a sunset hike to a nighttime theatrical display, the staff here always plans something to bring families together. Your kids will beg to return every year after forming the kind of family bonds and new friendships that will last a lifetime. What’s really special about the kids’ program at the C Lazy U is that children learn the joys of time together and time apart, taking pride in their newfound independence and new skill sets. 

Claiming 80 miles of pristine shoreline, Nantucket instantly conjures up images of the lazy days of summer: long, endless stretches of time where one has nothing more to do than stroll the beach, take in the historic sights, or immerse oneself in a book. Teeming with history and the nautical splendors of surf, sun, and sand, this is an idyllic family retreat for large groups looking to step into a bygone era when time seemed to move a little slower and the days passed by a little breezier. There’s no doubt as to why families flock to Nantucket. Whether it’s riding bikes on the coast to check out every lighthouse, renting a boat to discover the many inlets and bays, pampering oneself at a deluxe spa, or feasting on the fresh catch of the day in one of the area’s acclaimed seafood restaurants, there is an activity to suit every member of the family.  

Another highlight that draws visitors year after year is the now famous Nantucket Farmers and Artisans Market. Brimming with the freshest vegetables and flowers as well as local handicrafts, there is always something to tempt shoppers here. Stroll the aisles to enjoy a nonstop parade of the sweet, the savory, and the handmade. Kids can pick out their dinner or a special souvenir to take home. Even local chefs come here to pick out ingredients for their farm-to-table creations. From the epicurean delights of the chef’s table at The Pearl to Todd English’s restaurant at The Summer House, the gastro pleasures of Nantucket are both savvy and breezy. The Farmers Market is one reason the local restaurants are some of the most celebrated in this area.

As night falls, romantic duos and fun groups looking to unwind from a long day of meandering head to the Club Car restaurant/bar located on Main Street. This restaurant is situated in an authentic 1800s Pullman train coach and has become a venerable institution, known equally for its engaging pianist Tony as the famous gin and tonics made with Hendrick’s gin. But there’s no reason you can’t kick back in your own well-appointed kitchen, grill up some fish that until that very day was swimming in the sea, and enjoy a simple and delicious meal. And perhaps you should have the kids do the dishes—one of the duties they can tend to in the transformation from swabbie on the deck to captain at the wheel. Even doing dishes can be an adventure on the high sea.

The Event That Turns Austin Into the Liveliest Town in Texas

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The Event That Turns Austin Into the Liveliest Town in Texas

January 31, 2019

“We’re trying to bring a level of an experience a la Monaco to Austin for that one weekend,” says My Yacht Group’s Nicholas Frankl about the Formula 1 race that comes to Texas every fall. And Frankl should know how to do it. The Los Angeles and London-based party-thrower for the rich and famous, like so many people connected to Formula 1 racing and its hyperbolic universe, seemingly lives with his feet off the ground. His specialty: “That client who spends 100,000 euros in an evening,” he says.

Each year, the global racing circus comes to Austin and descends on the 3.4-mile, winding racetrack called Circuit of the Americas that was built for Formula 1 competition. And each fall—mark the dates of Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 on your calendar now—all that is over the top about Forumula 1 turns an already spirited town into a mind-blowing, must-experience international destination.

Arrive in Texas for Formula 1 weekend and you’re in for sensory overload. You’ll watch and hear the world’s most sophisticated cars howl around the 20-turn course until they’ve raced for nearly 200 miles. Fantastic Texas barbecue tempts your taste buds. Dancers and musicians inspire you to swing and sway.

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Then there’s the party that is Austin itself. A cultural mecca, it’s host to impressive dining and nightlife. (It bills itself the Live Music Capital of the World.) Mesh these two worlds together and the result is one of the more engaging atmospheres in North America.

The Race

Luckily for Austinites and the many thousands of car racing’s most rabid fans from around the globe, Formula 1 arrived in Austin two years ago, courtesy of some previous U.S. misfires. The racing series, which dates back to 1950 and currently consists of 11 teams traveling to approximately 20 races held on five continents, bounced around U.S. venues for decades before withdrawing from this country after leaving sleepy Indiana and its Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2007.

About three years later, Austin developers stood over 1,500 acres of open, rolling land 15 miles southeast of town and envisioned bringing auto racing ’s highest form of competition back to the United States, and specifically to central Texas. Formula 1 cars are wind-tunnel shaped and jammed with circuitry and innovation. Their 1.6-liter, turbocharged V-6 hybrid engines produce obscene amounts of horsepower (try more than 750), and they’ll whine to 15,000 revolutions per minute as they thrust cars weighing as little as 1,500 pounds to 60 miles per hour in around two seconds. An F1 car, which fits its nearly supine driver like a tight carbon-fiber suit and features a steering wheel packed with dials and readouts, can top more than 200 miles per hour and pull in excess of 4 Gs. Annual budgets for Formula 1 teams are outlandish; perennial favorite Scuderia Ferrari has reportedly burned more than $400 million in a season.

The Circuit of the Americas (COTA) was designed with one nod toward Formula 1’s heritage and nuance, and another toward Austin and Texas. Track connoisseurs will tell you that COTA’s turns 3 through 5 were inspired by a sequence of bends from Silverstone (a storied F1 track in England), and that turns 13 through 15 bear close resemblance to a section of Hockenheimring (Germany). Some of COTA’s corners subtly widen upon approach, which invites drivers to take different lines through the turns—and can make for more exciting racing.

The venue is also unquestionably Texan. Enjoy the race while chowing down on barbecued sausage or brisket and stay for the post-event concert held at the Austin360 Amphitheater, which is surrounded on three sides by track, and accommodates 14,000 people. Last year’s race entertainment was the high-profile rapper Pitbull.

But you don’t have to sit still. Walking paths traverse the facility—though it’s best to leave the Italian high heels or loafers at home, and instead hoof it over the long paths in a pair of locally bought snakeskin cowboy boots. Elevation changes throughout the venue make exploration both demanding and worthwhile.

“Folks in high-end hospitality often say ‘I want to get out and walk the track,’” says COTA president and CEO Jason Dial. “There are a lot of amazing vantage points.”

Whether paying $169 for a three-day general admission pass or nearly $8,000 per person for a long weekend’s worth of exclusive and perk-filled opportunities (including skybox seating and access to an open patio overlooking the pit lane, closed-circuit TV race coverage, gourmet food and wine, and the potential to hobnob with celebrities), you should also make a trip to the top of COTA’s 25-story Observation Tower. You’ll find an expansive view of Austin, the Texas Hill Country and, of course, the racetrack.

Austin City Limits

Of course for seasoned Formula 1 fans, some of whom follow the races from Bahrain to Monaco to Singapore, the demand for first-class dining, entertainment and excitement must extend beyond the cars, tracks and Sunday’s race. Fortunately, Austin has what this crowd wants.

Iconic hotels like the W Austin and Four Seasons flank the city’s fairly compact yet vibrant downtown, and make for good jumping-off points. Colorful bars and eateries—including Clive Bar, Craft Pride and El Naranjo—are clustered in the Rainey Street Historic District. Italian (Vespaio), seafood (Perla’s) and gourmet-burger (Hopdoddy) restaurants line South Congress Avenue. Nearby you’ll find incredible sushi (Uchi) and Thai food (Sway).

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But we’re just getting started. Austin is known for its live music (laying claim to music royalty that includes Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Ely and Gary Clark, Jr.), and the gritty and hopping Red River Cultural District packs together established venues and international crowds into the night. “There’s more than a dozen clubs in four blocks,” says Jennifer Houlihan, executive director for the advocacy group Austin Music People. “They’ll kind of save some of their best performers for that week, so the F1 crowd sees the best the city has to offer.”

Meanwhile, Fan Fest is COTA’s Austin-based party: Last year, the 12-block, four-day-and-night, downtown gathering featured a half-dozen stages with crowds of Brits wearing McLaren shirts and Germans in Mercedes AMG caps mingling with the locals. While some performances were free, a $299 VIP pass put you right next to the Bud Light Main Stage and out of the beer lines.

But this being Formula 1, there’s always entertainment that has aspirations in step with the sport’s own determined and deep-pocketed teams seeking the best at any cost. For $325 you can attend the dimly lit, Monaco nightclub-themed My Yacht Club party at the downtown Ballet Austin building hosted by the aforementioned Nicholas Frankl. The event begins at 10 p.m. and the imported European DJ, as well as the bartenders, don’t stop working until 4 a.m. In 2012, millions of dollars worth of Lamborghinis were parked out front, and private tables, many manned with their own waitresses, went for $4,500 and up.

“We built a custom stage for the client who bought the $50,000 table, and had two security guards looking out for his guests,” Frankl says. “He had two custom 24-carat gold Methuselahs of gold-infused champagne.” One would be hard-pressed to devise a better ending to a trip that’s dedicated to the fast lane.

Find Your Adventurous Side in the Colorado Mountains This Winter

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Find Your Adventurous Side in the Colorado Mountains This Winter

December 17, 2018

There comes a point when the speed seems natural. Cruising through the open valleys, banking turns and floating through powder, the snowmobile no longer feels like a separate entity but merely an extension. And that’s when things really get fun.

Vail, the largest ski mountain in the U.S., has the kind of invigorating terrain that draws people back year after year, generation after generation. (And the fleet of non-stop groomers helps.) But beyond the ski runs is a whole Rocky Mountain playground for those who want to venture out of bounds. Snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing all have cult followings.

Whether you call them snow gos, snow machines or snowmobiles, the ones available for rent can fit two people — the driver and the hanger-on. There are advantages to both roles, and it’s easy to swap back and forth. 

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Nova Guides is the largest touring outfit in the Vail Valley, and in this instance, bigger really is better. Headquartered at Camp Hale just a few miles down the road from the Continental Divide, they have a full-service restaurant in their lodge that dishes out hearty lunchtime fare, warm drinks and ambiance from a two-sided fireplace that is perpetually stoked. Though the point of snowmobiling is, in part, to get out there — really out there — it’s easy enough to hightail it back to the lodge if you need a warm-up drink or if you’re done with the adventure before the rest of your group is. Nova Guides has a secondary base camp on the outskirts of Minturn for shorter excursions, too.

There are a couple of ways to take to the snowfields: by-the-hour rentals for do-it-yourself touring, as well as guided tours with full and half-day options. Guided tours are a good way to get used to the machines, which have a kicky burst of power as soon as you rev them. They also eliminate the need for trail finding, as the guides know exactly where they’re going. And where is that, exactly? Why the top of the Rockies, of course.

“We’ve got 80 miles of trail to choose from,” says Drew Fortner of Nova Guides. “No two tours are alike.”

Guides take the pulse of the group as a whole — who’s gone where before, how fast people want to travel, what they want to see — and then create an itinerary. Camp Hale is a natural starting place, as it’s right out the front door and is a wide-open valley peppered with history. At Vail’s Covered Bridge stands a 10th Mountain Division ski trooper sculpture, replete with M1-Garand semi-automatic rifle, 7’6” skis and white ski suit. During World War II, American soldiers trained at Camp Hale so they could fight the Germans in Italy. They were known as the 10th Mountain Division, and they took the Germans by surprise at Riva Ridge. Though most of the infrastructure that was at Camp Hale is now gone, folks can still cruise by the ammunition bunkers, firing range and the foundations of the barracks. And for those who don’t have much of an interest in history, the endless views and jagged peaks provide some eye candy.

That same valley is an excellent spot for dialing in your snowmobiling technique. Though it’s fairly simple to turn the key, give it gas and make some turns, there is a bit of finesse that comes with experience, especially when you’re dealing with fresh powder. Just as you do on skis or a snowboard, snowmobiles float and swoosh in the powder. Given the size and power of the machines, it seems incongruous that they’d feel so light and airy, but that’s part of the draw. Tours dip up and down over the Rockies, peaking at 12,700 feet above sea level. The wind-scrubbed, open terrain is testament to how harsh the conditions are.

“There are often non-skiers in a group,” Fortner says. “And sometimes, this is the only chance they’ll get to see what it’s like above tree line.” Though the machine certainly does the lion’s share of the work, snowmobiling is more physical than one might expect. Because they respond to conditions, snowmobiles dip and lurch just like your muscles. It’s what makes it more interactive and fun. For those with itty-bitties in the group, or people who are sensitive to the cold, Nova also has snowcat tours, what they call “snow coaches.” Heated, the coaches allow for anyone to tour the highalpine Rockies, though they’re not as exhilarating as the snowmobiles.

Experienced backcountry travelers extol the virtues of the sheer distance the snowmobiles can travel in such a short period of time. From Camp Hale it’s easy to cruise over to Vail Pass or Shrine Pass on a snow go and check out the lay of the land. Mount Elbert and Mount Massive — two of Colorado’s tallest peaks — keep watch over the world. Mount of the Holy Cross, a talisman of sorts for Wild West settlers and adventurers, almost always holds snow in the cross, made by crevasses, on one side. Groups can end up in Red Cliff, a funky town at the end of the Shrine Pass road. Red Cliff doesn’t have any stoplights, but it does have dogs galore, a single liquor store and Mango’s, a multi-story restaurant that specializes in, of all things, fish tacos. And beer, or course. There’s also a rock in the middle of town, which played host to the entire settlement during the mid-1800s. Word of an Indian revolt to the east made its way to Colorado, and the town of Red Cliff ran to the rock, sleeping, eating and drawing water from the river below with a bucket on the end of some rope. The wild Indians never showed up, and eventually the settlers left the rock and went about their business. But the rock is still there, one of countless bits of history scattered throughout the White River National Forest.

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Before skiing became a downhill sport, it was transportation. Scooting across miles and miles of snow, both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are time-honored ways to get exercise and cover some ground. In Norway, there are miles and miles of trails between villages, with little huts along the way that offer spiced wine and lunch, sometimes reindeer. In the U.S., the two activities are more specialized. As such, they require specific trails.

Many golf courses in Eagle County allow both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing during the winter months. Some of them, such as Vail, even cater to them. But inside the county lines there is no better place to fall into the groove than McCoy Park at Beaver Creek.

“Most ski resorts have their Nordic courses down in the valley,” explains Nate Goldberg, Beaver Creek’s director of hiking. “But McCoy Park is at the top of Beaver Creek. With a five-and-a-half-minute chair ride you’re there, and it’s so quiet and beautiful. You’ve got three mountain ranges to look at.”

Other than during the occasional snowshoe race, McCoy Park doesn’t see a lot of action. Located at the top of Strawberry Park Express, you can’t see or hear the interstate that runs through the valley, and there’s not much in the way of human company. It is, for the most part, a solitary activity along the crystalline paths that spiral out from the course’s center. A yurt along the way allows for shelter from inclement weather — or simply a rest stop to reapply sunscreen, stretch the hamstrings and relax. The trees are more sporadic up at the top of the world, and the occasional porcupine can be seen propped in those trees every once in a while. Bark eaters, porcupines are oddly comfortable in the snow, and have called Beaver Creek home for longer than the resort has been around. Foxes, weasels and snowshoe hares can also be seen at McCoy, though they often like to stay out of sight.

For those who have both the time and inclination, a morning, afternoon or full day at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is unforgettable. Located at the base of Ski Cooper — the only ski resort in Colorado that is publicly owned, this by the town of Leadville — Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is a secluded network of cross country and snowshoe trails cut into a daddy-pine forest. Loops meet up with other loops, making the breezy 25 kilometers of trails feel like full-on backcountry, albeit with an easy escape. Rated green, blue and black just like downhill runs, folks can choose their own adventure. And anyone who eats, ever, should include a stop at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse on the itinerary.

It was a picnic table that started it. Nothing special, just a wooden rectangle with benches where cross-country skiers would sit and nosh, taking in the wide-open views of the Sawatch Range across the way. But it got Ty and Roxanne Hall, owners of the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center, thinking about “expanding” the picnic table. And they came up with a gourmand’s yurt.

The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse has long been a local favorite for birthdays, anniversaries, and run-of-the-mill hoopla among friends. It’s the epitome of living large in Colorado: gorgeous views, alpine activity, good food and excellent friends. There’s even the possibility of a little live acoustic music later at the Nordic center.

“Part of it is our location — the view is exceptional,” Roxanne says. “But it’s also the yurt. It wouldn’t be the same if it were a cabin. It’s so quaint, plus we feel really far away.”

The Cookhouse serves dinner seven nights a week and lunch on weekends. Lunch is a la carte and has two seatings. The four-course dinner only has one seating. Both have cult followings.

“It’s scratch cooking,” says John Fulton, head chef at the yurt.

Though the Halls have a snowmobile that can run people out to the yurt, people are encouraged to get there on their own steam. Snowshoes and cross-country skis are the most popular choices, though lucky children have been known to be dragged in their sleds by parents with moxie (and energy) to spare. The most direct route from the base lodge to the yurt — Cooper Loop — is about a mile. There’s a 300-foot elevation gain. As often as not, though, folks opt to cruise around on some of the other trails, such as Larry’s Loop, The Woods or Griz, before sitting down to a cookhouse feast. Remember that law about food eaten while camping always tastes better? It seems to apply under these circumstances, too.

The feta-stuffed buffalo burger is a lunch highlight that will tempt even those who prefer to skip the red meat. At dinner, wild sockeye salmon is grilled on a plank, giving it a lightly smoked flavor. Colorado rack of lamb is roasted to tender succulence, while the elk tenderloin is seared and served with blueberries and sage. Roasted chicken and curried tofu are also on the menu. 

All the food and water used at the yurt is schlepped in by snowmobile. That means the “facilities” are two outhouses, riding high above the snowpack. Sometimes it can be an adventure, dashing out into a snowstorm to use them. But coming back into the yurt afterwards is rather friendly. Heated by an old pot-bellied stove that came from Camp Hale, the cozy space is filled with antique tables and mismatched chairs. If meteors obliterate the world or global warming washes away the continent, that solid stove will remain intact. It keeps the yurt downright balmy even on the coldest of nights. Those in the know usually bring house slippers or booties to wear during mealtime, as heavy winter boots aren’t necessary — or particularly comfortable — inside. 

The trick is not to eat too much for the trek back to the car. Primarily downhill, it’s easy to make it to the base lodge as long as you stay awake and upright. Otherwise, all bets are off. And those who decide to nap in the forest will certainly awaken to a different type of adventure entirely. But hey, at least it’s an adventure. And that’s the stuff memories are made of.